When Kawhi Leonard joined the Toronto Raptors last summer, it was on the heels of a season in which he’d played in just nine games for the San Antonio Spurs.
Part of that was due to a right quadriceps injury, though there was a belief he was also “holding out” in an effort to force a trade. Either way, it took all of one game in a Raptors uniform for Kawhi to prove he was plenty healthy. He logged 37 minutes, his highest single-game total in over a year, during Toronto’s season-opening win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, dropping 24 points and 12 rebounds in the process. Six starts into the season, he was averaging 27.3 points and 34.7 minutes per game.
Yet the Raptors never fully unleashed Leonard. On the rare nights he played in a back-to-back, he’d sit out at least one half, and he ended up appearing in just 60 of Toronto’s 82 regular-season games. For many years, the NBA status quo has been that the best players play the most minutes—postseason or not. Yet 96 other players registered more minutes than Leonard during the regular season.
While some of Leonard’s early absences were attributed to lingering quadriceps issues, as the season went on, “rest/load management” increasingly became the team’s official explanation for his missed games. Select fans and media members crucified the Raptors for sitting their star player during nationally televised games, but Toronto stuck to their plan. After winning 59 games and earning the one-seed last season only to fizzle out in the playoffs, the Raptors knew keeping Leonard’s accumulated fatigue relatively low was the smartest possible play.
“It’s 82 games, and for me, these are just practices,” Leonard told the Wall Street Journal in March. “Playoffs is when it’s time to lace them up.”
While the specifics of Leonard’s “load management” plan, which was spearheaded by Toronto Director of Sports Science Alex McKechnie, were kept intentionally vague, there were no illusions about its intent. A healthier Kawhi would theoretically be more available, more explosive and more dominant in the playoffs. Since the postseason schedule is much more generous in terms of rest, with seven-game series being spread across roughly 16 days, there was no reason to force Kawhi to endure back-to-backs or three games in four nights during the regular season.
“It’s not about me feeling tired or not playing this next game because I’m tired,” Leonard told Bleacher Report of the plan. “It’s to get me to my full potential, 100 percent healthy. That’s everybody’s goal. That’s good. That’s what you want from a team. You want them to care about you, your body, and want you to be healthy.”
Toronto may have caught a lot of flak for Leonard’s load management throughout the season, but they’ve taken the proverbial bubble wrap off him during the playoffs, and the results have been nothing short of spectacular. He’s on pace for a new postseason high in points per game (31.8) and his 37.7 minutes per game are the most he’s ever averaged in the playoffs. During the pivotal Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, Leonard dropped 41 points in 43 minutes, including a rubber-rim game-winner:
“I just tried to play hard every possession,” Leonard said after the game. “I wanted to leave it all out on the floor.” The Raptors still have a long way to go to reach their first NBA Finals in franchise history, but with a fully-charged Kawhi leading the charge, confidence is at an all-time high.
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